Rodan, John Wayne and what George Takei got wrong

George Takei was an architecture major at UCLA as a young man, but his heart was never in it. He wanted to act. His father surprised him one day by pointing out an ad in the Rafu Shimpo, the local Japanese newspaper. King Brothers Productions was looking for Japanese-American actors to dub the movie Rodan. Takei landed the three-day gig, his first paid acting job.

The four actors hired for the work each played eight or nine characters, watching the movie on a screen and reading their English lines in time with the characters’ moving lips. “With earphones over my head and intensely focused on the silent images, I stuttered, cried, pontificated, and shrieked,” Takei wrote in his autobiography To the Stars.

I first met George Takei at a convention in Buffalo, and then a couple more times at cons in Toronto. So I already had a few signed Star Trek 8x10s when I heard he was coming back for a Toronto Trek convention. I needed a new idea.

I remembered the story from his book, so I bought a reproduction 11×14 Rodan lobby card on eBay. Placing it on his autograph table at the convention elicited that big trademark smile from Takei. “This was my first paid acting job.”

“I know,” I said. “I read about it in your book.” The autograph line wasn’t too big, and he and I had a nice chat about his early days as an actor. He was, as always, charming and friendly with his fans.

Lobby card for the Japanese science-fiction movie Rodan, signed by George Takei to Peter. In the image,  people flee from a large winged monster.

Years later, in 2013, Takei was again coming to Toronto, to Fan Expo. And I remembered another story: over the course of TOS season 1, he had advocated for a bigger role, with more for Sulu to do. “My ship may have been moving steady at warp three, but I wanted to do more than merely announce that fact,” Takei wrote in To the Stars. “I peppered Gene Roddenberry with character-defining ideas, personal histories, plot possibilities, anything that might give Sulu more prominence. Gene was receptive and said he would devote more attention to developing my character.”

And then a big offer arrived just as production on season one was closing: John Wayne wanted Takei to play a Vietnamese captain in The Green Berets. It was a huge break for a young actor, but Takei was conflicted; he opposed the war, while Wayne was a vocal proponent. Then Takei did something amazing: he risked losing the part by telling Wayne his opinion. Wayne listened, nodded and said he wanted Takei on the movie anyway.

Just before leaving for the movie set, Gene Roddenberry handed Takei some welcome news: a batch of season two scripts that featured Sulu. Included in that set were The Trouble with Tribbles, The Gamesters of Triskelion and Bread and Circuses.

Remember Sulu in those classic episodes? Nope, because days of rain delayed shooting on the outdoor Green Berets set, and Takei missed the start of season two. “I returned to Los Angeles heartsick and resentful. The scripts I had taken with me…had all been filmed, save for Mirror Mirror. The lines I had so anxiously committed to memory had already been spoken by someone else; the spirited lobbying I had mounted to enhance Sulu’s role had all been for naught. I had gained nothing but a new competitor…an actor name Walter Koenig.”  

At Fan Expo, Takei told me he is proud of his Green Berets performance and doesn’t regret doing the movie, but that it still hurts that heavy rain meant great lines went to Chekov instead of Sulu.

Lobby card for The Green Berets, featuring George Takei and John Wayne and two others in army uniforms, signed by George Takei

Well, except…

It’s a great story, but Takei got the details wrong. Take a look at a production-order episode list (at either Wikipedia or in Marc Cushman’s These Are The Voyages, Season Two) and you’ll see Mirror, Mirror filmed before Tribbles, Gamesters and Circuses, so the statement that he missed filming those episodes but returned in time for Mirror can’t be correct. Also, Cushman states Takei’s leave from the set began the day before Tribbles started production, so it was not the delayed return that robbed him of those lines in Tribbles, it was his own request to go shoot a movie. The Green Berets shoot did go over time and Takei was gone for longer than anticipated, but the story common in fandom that Sulu was supposed to be featured in Tribbles — a story that was common because Takei told it at conventions and wrote about it in his book — simply isn’t correct.

Cover of the book The Trouble With Tribbles, featuring a photo of William Shatner half buried in fuzzy Tribbles

David Gerrold also confirms that Sulu was never planned for the episode. In his book on the making of The Trouble with Tribbles, Gerrold writes that his first-draft script included a new character named Doggerty; Bob Justman suggested changing that to Chekov, writing in a memo: “Let’s re-write so that Ensign Chekov has the Doggerty part. I feel that as long as the prices are equal, we should take advantage of our regulars as much as we can.” So it was Justman and not John Wayne who put Chekov in Tribbles.

I intend no criticism of George Takei here. To the Stars was published more than 25 years after the events in his Tribbles tale; details become fuzzy. But now I can watch that episode without thinking that rain kept Sulu from shopping with Uhura on K-7.

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